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the saint has left our shores

July 8, 2010

[International Socialism Journal] “The saint has left our shores, I sincerely hope forever”. Jan Christiaan Smuts, a future South African prime minister, uttered these words in 1914. The saint was none other than Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on his way home to India after 21 years in South Africa. Gandhi certainly came to personify saintliness. In 1944 the scientist Albert Einstein stated, “Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” And, of course, death sealed his iconic status. His demise at the hands of an assassin’s bullet on 30 January 1948 sanctified Gandhi as the Mahatma, India’s “Great Soul”. King George VI described his death as “an irreparable loss for mankind”. Labour prime minister Clement Atlee expressed “profound distress” and Nehru immortalised him further with the memorable words, “The light that shone in this country was no ordinary light”; it was “something more than the immediate present” and would continue to “illuminate this country for many years”, giving “solace to innumerable hearts”.

As the “father” of non-violent direct action Gandhi is credited with providing the inspiration behind Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, the peace campaigns of the Greenham Common women and today with protests over climate change and war. This veneration is matched only by the venom that he inspired in others. Winston Churchill scorned him as a “half-naked fakir”, complaining bitterly in 1931 that:

It is alarming and nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is still organising and conducting a campaign of civil disobedience, to parlay on equal terms with the representative of the Emperor-King.

In India and elsewhere Gandhi has been criticised for being “anti_modern”, a hardline traditionalist, a blackmailer who used fasting as a means of getting his way; on the left he is seen as the “mascot of the bourgeoisie” and anti working class. There are elements of truth to all these accusations but it is important to bear in mind that bourgeois nationalism is far from straightforward, much less pure, and fundamentally flawed. Indian nationalism was no exception.

Gandhi’s life was one of complexities, contradictions and ironies: he was the apostle of non-violence mowed down by an assassin’s bullet; a deeply religious individual who fought passionately for Hindu-Muslim unity, only to see India free but partitioned; a man who devoted much of his life to the removal of untouchability, the social uplift of women and the rights of the peasantry, who helped create an India today marked by increasing social inequality that continues to blight the lives of the poor. He was imprisoned nine times by colonial governments who saw him as a mad anarchist and yet every British viceroy from 1916 onwards had to deal with him. He never held political office and is viewed as above the grubby business of political horse-trading and yet he was a shrewd political operator who weighed every action and word in a calculated manner. This is the enigma of Gandhi: how could a London trained barrister come to dominate Indian politics in the first half of the 20th century and for much of the rest? (read)

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